Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

by Daniel Quinn, Mdaniel Quinn

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553375404
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1995
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 18,551
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Daniel Quinn grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and studied at St. Louis University, the University of Vienna, and Loyola University of Chicago. He worked in Chicago-area publishing for twenty years before beginning work on the book for which he is best known, Ishmael. In 1991, this book was chosen from among some 2,500 international entrants in the Turner Tomorrow competition to win the half-million dollar prize for a novel offering “creative and positive solutions to global problems.” It has subsequently sold more than a million copies in English, is available in some thirty languages, and has been used in high schools and colleges worldwide in courses as varied as philosophy, geography, ecology, archaeology, history, biology, zoology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology. Subsequent works include Providence, The Story of B, My Ishmael: A Sequel, Beyond Civilization, After Dachau, The Holy, At Woomeroo, The Invisibility of Success, and The Teachings. Daniel Quinn died in 2018.

Read an Excerpt

1


The first time I read the ad, I choked and cursed and spat and threw the paper to the floor. Since even this didn’t seem to be quite enough, I snatched it up, marched into the kitchen, and shoved it into the trash. While I was there, I made myself a little breakfast and gave myself some time to cool down. I ate and thought about something else entirely. That’s right. Then I dug the paper out of the trash and turned back to the Personals section, just to see if the damn thing was still there and just the way I remembered it. It was.


TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.


An earnest desire to save the world! Oh, I liked that. That was rich indeed. An earnest desire to save the world–yes, that was splendid. By noon, two hundred mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, noodleheads, gawkies, and assorted oafs and thickwits would doubtless be lined up at the address given, ready to turn over all their worldlies for the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of some guru pregnant with the news that all will be well if everyone will just turn around and give his neighbor a big hug.

You will wonder: Why is this man so indignant? So bitter? It’s a fair question. In fact, it’s a question I was asking myself.

The answer goes back to a time, a couple decades ago, when I’d had the silly notion that the thing I most wanted to do in the world was . . . to find a teacher. That’s right. I imagined I wanted a teacher–needed a teacher. To show me how one goes about doing something that might be called . . . saving the world.

Stupid, no? Childish. Naïve. Simple. Callow. Or just fundamentally dumb. In one so manifestly normal in other respects, it needs explaining.

It came about in this way.

During the children’s revolt of the sixties and seventies, I was just old enough to understand what these kids had in mind–they meant to turn the world upside down–and just young enough to believe they might actually succeed. It’s true. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I expected to see that the new era had begun, that the sky was a brighter blue and the grass a brighter green. I expected to hear laughter in the air and to see people dancing in the streets, and not just kids–everyone! I won’t apologize for my naïveté; you only have to listen to the songs to know that I wasn’t alone.

Then one day when I was in my mid-teens, I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn’t been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this? Bewildered by this? It seemed so. Everyone else seemed to be able to pass it off with a cynical grin that said, “Well, what did you really expect? There’s never been any more than this and never will be any more than this. Nobody’s out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world, that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking. Get a job, make some money, work till you’re sixty, then move to Florida and die.”

I couldn’t shrug it away like this, and in my innocence I thought there had to be someone out there with an unknown wisdom who could dispel my disillusionment and bewilderment: a teacher.

Well, of course there wasn’t.

I didn’t want a guru or a kung fu master or a spiritual director.

I didn’t want to become a sorcerer or learn the zen of archery or meditate or align my chakras or uncover past incarnations. Arts and disciplines of that kind are fundamentally selfish; they’re all designed to benefit the pupil–not the world. I was after something else entirely, but it wasn’t in the Yellow Pages or anywhere else that I could discover.

In Hermann Hesse’s The Journey to the East, we never find out what Leo’s awesome wisdom consists of. This is because Hesse couldn’t tell us what he himself didn’t know. He was like me–he just yearned for there to be someone in the world like Leo, someone with a secret knowledge and a wisdom beyond his own. In fact, of course, there is no secret knowledge; no one knows anything that can’t be found on a shelf in the public library. But I didn’t know that then.

So I looked. Silly as it sounds now, I looked. By comparison, going after the Grail would have made more sense. I won’t talk about it, it’s too embarrassing. I looked until I wised up. I stopped making a fool of myself, but something died inside of me–something that I’d always sort of liked and admired. In its place grew a scar–a tough spot but also a sore spot.

And now, years after I’d given up the search, here was some charlatan advertising in the newspaper for the very same young dreamer that I’d been fifteen years ago.

But this still doesn’t explain my outrage, does it?

Try this: You’ve been in love with someone for a decade–someone who barely knows you’re alive. You’ve done everything, tried everything to make this person see that you’re a valuable, estimable person, and that your love is worth something. Then one day you open up the paper and glance at the Personals column, and there you see that your loved one has placed an ad . . . seeking someone worthwhile to love and be loved by.

Oh, I know it’s not exactly the same. Why should I have expected this unknown teacher to have contacted me instead of advertising for a pupil? Contrariwise, if this teacher was a charlatan, as I assumed, why would I have wanted him to contact me?

Let it go, I was being irrational. It happens, it’s allowed.

2


I had to go down there, of course–had to satisfy myself that it was just another scam. You understand. Thirty seconds would do it, a single look, ten words out of his mouth. Then I’d know. Then I could go home and forget about it.

When I got there, I was surprised to find it was a very ordinary sort of office building, full of second-rate flacks, lawyers, dentists, travel agents, a chiropractor, and a private investigator or two. I’d expected something a little more atmospheric–a brownstone with paneled walls, high ceilings, and shuttered windows, perhaps. I was looking for Room 105, and I found it in the back, where a window would overlook the alley. The door was uninformative. I pushed it open and stepped into a large, empty room. This uncommon space had been created by knocking down interior partitions, the marks of which could still be seen on the bare hardwood floor.

That was my first impression: emptiness. The second was olfactory; the place reeked of the circus–no, not the circus, the menagerie: unmistakable but not unpleasant. I looked around. The room was not entirely empty. Against the wall at the left stood a small bookcase containing thirty or forty volumes, mainly on history, prehistory, and anthropology. A lone overstuffed chair stood in the middle, facing away, toward the wall at the right, and looking like something the movers had left behind. Doubtless this was reserved for the master; his pupils would kneel or crouch on mats arranged in a semicircle at his knee.

And where were these pupils, who I had predicted would be present by the hundreds? Had they perhaps come and been led away like the children of Hamelin? A film of dust lay undisturbed on the floor to disprove this fancy.

There was something odd about the room, but it took me another look round to figure out what it was. In the wall opposite the door stood two tall casement windows admitting a feeble light from the alley; the wall to the left, common with the office next door, was blank. The wall to the right was pierced by a very large plate-glass window, but this was plainly not a window to the outside world, for it admitted no light at all; it was a window into an adjacent room, even dimmer than the one I occupied. I wondered what object of piety was displayed there, safely beyond the touch of inquisitive hands. Was it some embalmed Yeti or Bigfoot, made of cat fur and papier-mâché? Was it the body of a UFOnaut cut down by a National Guardsman before he could deliver his sublime message from the stars (“We are brothers. Be nice.”)?

Because it was backed by darkness, the glass in this window was black–opaque, reflective. I made no attempt to see beyond it as I approached; I was the spectacle under observation. On arrival, I continued to gaze into my own eyes for a moment, then rolled the focus forward beyond the glass–and found myself looking into another pair of eyes.

I fell back, startled. Then, recognizing what I’d seen, I fell back again, now a little frightened.

The creature on the other side of the glass was a full-grown gorilla.

Full-grown says nothing, of course. He was terrifyingly enormous, a boulder, a sarsen of Stonehenge. His sheer mass was alarming in itself, even though he wasn’t using it in any menacing way. On the contrary, he was half-sitting, half-reclining most placidly, nibbling delicately on a slender branch he carried in his left hand like a wand.

I did not know what to say. You will be able to judge how unnerved I was by this fact: that it seemed to me I should speak–excuse myself, explain my presence, justify my intrusion, beg the creature’s pardon. I felt it was an affront to gaze into his eyes, but I was paralyzed, helpless. I could look at nothing else in the world but his face, more hideous than any other in the animal kingdom because of its similarity to our own, yet in its way more noble than any Greek ideal of perfection.

There was in fact no obstacle between us. The pane of glass would have parted like a tissue had he touched it. But he seemed to have no idea of touching it. He sat and gazed into my eyes and nibbled the end of his branch and waited. No, he wasn’t waiting; he was merely there, had been there before I arrived and would be there when I’d left. I had the feeling I was of no more significance to him when a passing cloud is to a shepherd resting on a hillside.

As my fear began to ebb, consciousness of my situation returned. I said to myself that the teacher was plainly not on hand, that there was nothing to keep me there, that I should go home. But I didn’t like to leave with the feeling that I’d accomplished nothing at all. I looked around, thinking I’d leave a note, if I could find something to write on (and with), but there was nothing. Nevertheless, this search, with the thought of written communication in mind, brought to my attention something I’d overlooked in the room that lay beyond the glass; it was a sign or poster hanging on the wall behind the gorilla. It read:

WITH MAN GONE,
WILL THERE
BE HOPE
FOR GORILLA?

This sign stopped me–or rather, this text stopped me. Words are my profession; I seized these and demanded that they explain themselves, that they cease to be ambiguous. Did they imply that hope for gorillas lay in the extinction of the human race or in its survival? It could be read either way.

It was, of course, a koan–meant to be inexplicable. It disgusted me for that reason, and for another reason: because it appeared that this magnificent creature beyond the glass was being held in captivity for no other reason than to serve as a sort of animate illustration for this koan.

You really ought to do something about this, I told myself angrily. Then I added: It would be best if you sat down and were still.

I listened to the echo of this strange admonishment as if it were a fragment of music I couldn’t quite identify. I looked at the chair and wondered: Would it be best to sit down and be still? And if so, why? The answer came readily enough: Because, if you are still, then you will be better able to hear. Yes, I thought, that is undeniably so.

For no conscious reason, I lifted my eyes to those of my beastly companion in the next room. As everyone knows, eyes speak. A pair of strangers can effortlessly reveal their mutual interest and attraction in a single glance. His eyes spoke, and I understood. My legs turned to jelly, and I barely managed to reach the chair without collapsing.

“But how?” I said, not daring to speak the words aloud.

“What does it matter?” he replied as silently. “It’s so, and nothing more needs to be said.”

“But you–” I sputtered. “You are . . .”

I found that, having come to the word, and with no other word to put in its place, I could not speak it.

After a moment he nodded, as if in acknowledgment of my difficulty. “I am the teacher.”

For a time, we gazed into each other’s eyes, and my head felt as empty as a derelict barn.

Then he said: “Do you need time to collect yourself?”

“Yes!” I cried, speaking aloud for the first time.

He turned his massive head to one side to peer at me curiously. “Will it help you to listen to my story?”

“Indeed it will,” I said. “But first–if you will–please tell me your name.”

He stared at me for a while without replying and (as far as I could tell at that time) without expression. Then he proceeded as if I hadn’t spoken at all.

“I was born somewhere in the forests of equatorial West Africa,” he said. “I’ve never made any effort to find out exactly where, and see no reason to do so now. Do you happen to know anything about animal collecting for zoos and circurses?”

I looked up, startled. “I know nothing at all about animal collecting.”

“At one time, or at least during the thirties, the method commonly used with gorillas was this: On finding a band, collectors would shoot the females and pick up all the infants in sight.”

“How terrible,” I said, without thinking.

The creature replied with a shrug. “I have no actual memory of the event–though I have memories of still earlier times. In any case, the Johnsons sold me to a zoo in some small northeastern city–I can’t say which, for I had no awareness of such things as yet. There I lived and grew for several years.”

He paused and nibbled absentmindedly on his branch for a while, as if gathering his thoughts.

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Ishmael (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 246 reviews.
Jewelies42 More than 1 year ago
A reviewer of this book once wrote that she defines all the many books she's read into two categories: those "before Ishmael" and "after Ishmael". I agree, but with more muscle...I tend to define my entire worldview (yes, it is THAT provocative!) into ideas I had Before/After Ishmael. I've given away over 20 copies of this book to friends and family with the hope that it will touch the people I love with the same kind of grace I felt when I read it. Truly remarkable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I decided upon this book because I was told it was a must read. If you like preachy books without explanation then this just might be for you. It felt like "The Secret" where the author is demeaning and telling you how you should feel instead of just proving their piece. I do not recommend to any age group. Boring, preachy, slow... etc
Guest More than 1 year ago
I will agree with those who said this book was hard to get through. It was. I didn't enjoy the style of writing or the tone of the book and I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters. Normally those points would not allow me to enjoy a book at all. The strange thing is that I HAD to get through this book - because the ideas Quinn wanted to convey were so powerful. I always tell people that this book is worth getting through to get the background information and then move on to a much more well written book by the same author, 'The Story of B'.
Emery42 More than 1 year ago
Ishmael will challenge the way you think and live, in a very good way. After reading this book you will want to do anything and everything to save the world.
JAJbooks More than 1 year ago
I read a lot of reviews on this book before buying, and most of them talked about a life changing experience. Well, I completely agree. This is the story I've always wanted, and it has confirmed the way I've always felt about humanity and the world as a whole. This book well forever change the way you look at the world. By the end of the book I was on the verge of crying. GET THIS BOOK.
Brigit More than 1 year ago
Ishmael was recommended by a friend, and I am very glad it was. What an utterly unique and thought provoking book this is. If you like an intellectual challenge, if you like to have your thoughts and beliefs challenged, then you will enjoy this story. A teacher, unlike any other, is looking for a student. The student he is looking for needs to have a strong desire to save the world. The student he gets thinks he knows what he is getting in to, but after his initial shock, he is challenged into having to find the answers buried deep within his own subconscious and in mankind's own history. There are so many interesting facts and ideas brought up in their interactions.
cap_man More than 1 year ago
I have never come across something that has changed my outlook on life so drastically. This is a must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not enjoy this book. I admit there were bits of interesting parts. However, it felt as if I was almost reading a bible. This is not a favorable feeling. I prefer novels with more of a plot, which Ishmeal, in my opinion, lacks. Although the language is appropriate and the novel is even well written, I detest the story line. I don't recommend this book for those looking for a creative experience. 
LunaLovegood69 More than 1 year ago
I was recommended this book by a fellow co-worker. I'm a opened minded new age hippy for say. I'm not someone who can get into alot of books unless its Harry Potter. This book got me to open my eyes with the Mother Culture has brain washed our life style. Leavers and Takers as well. The book had many good points as well. I wanted to save the world before and this book just gave me more of a reason to save it now. This is such an amazing book the person who recommended it to me asked to barrow it and read it again, as well as this book will be held onto for future re-reading.
therealangiemccoy More than 1 year ago
thought provoking, easy to read. a message that will stay with you forever.
RedShikari More than 1 year ago
This books seems a bit silly whenever I try to describe it: "Well, you see, a gorilla teaches a man how to save the world." That doesn't do it any kind of justice. What this book will do is change the way you see the world and the people in it. You might start acting a bit differently, start thinking of third-world countries with a bit more respect, and you might start up a conversation with the gorilla at the local zoo. Read this one just to get yourself questioning the world a bit, if for nothing else.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a phenomenal story that, while fiction, sets your mind in motion. I have bought several copies because I felt that the people I love just had to read it. All students would benefit from this book as well as the recreational reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book changed my perspective on life, opended my eyes to ideas and enlightenment I never knew existed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quinn brings up ideas that society has been recycling for ages. Although the basis of his ideas are not unique, he portrayed them in a way that left readers thinking. The reader can easily tell that the purpose of Quinn¿s book was to ¿help save the world¿. Although this idea sounds ridiculous, he offers information that is socially significant. While his ideas present positive solutions to universal problems, he tends to ramble. He never reaches past the foundation of the ideas to make the fiction piece more organic. However, it seems that Quinn¿s purpose was not to make an artistic story, but to plainly help humans relate to their world. This book points out the flaws in society, and easily changes the way the reader views the world¿s situation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was given this book by a friend and told that it was a must read. This is going to be a very unpopular star rating, but... Daniel Quinn is spot-on in saying that Mother Culture has brain washed the masses, even the more enlightened ones.
Jeyra on LibraryThing 27 days ago
A talking gorilla leads a man through all of the important questions surrounding life and existence. The process is basically Socratic, and some of the questions, though poignant, and rather sweepingly, sometimes even illogically answered. Still, a book to make people think, and certainly worth the read if you are in high school or early college. No inappropriate content.
l_aurore on LibraryThing 27 days ago
I had heard so many things about how "life-changing" and "mind-blowing" this book was, so naturally, I had to pick it up. And I loved it -- declared it five-star-worthy and thought-provoking and recommended it to anyone I could, including my book club. So, naturally, I was surprised by its 50/50 reception when we met about it - criticisms about it being without a major plotline, just about a gorilla talking, and about the subject not being mind-blowing unless you're an undergraduate not yet wise to the world.Well, the counter-argument: Ishmael does not highlight this mind-blowing never-been-thought-or-mentioned-before point of being, but it does pull together strands of what critical minds already have heard and thought, add an interesting point of view, and weave it together in a way that I hadn't experienced before. It will mean different things to different age groups, depending on where the reader is in their world view and thought process - but really, I think it can be valuable at any stage. And although the plot was minimal (it really is a gigantic conversation in the form of a novel, in socratic questioning format), I was still engaged with how it developed. I cared about Ishmael and what happened to him.In short, I love the way Ishmael makes you pull together various thoughts about civilization and think about it all in context. I much preferred The Story of B. because of the deepening of the philosophy and the greater storyline, but Ishmael is essential to beginning the journey with David Quinn, and if you realize that it will be more of a conversation than an exciting novel with massive plot-twists and respect it for what it is, you will enjoy it as much as I did.
caerulius on LibraryThing 27 days ago
I did enjoy this book- it was extremely thought provoking. I did, however, agree with Ishmael when he would get frustrated with the narrator- I spent much of the book being frustrated with how little the narrator cared to contribute to the conversations, and often rather wished it had simply been a philosophical treatise, rather than insisting on the conceit of the "conversation", which was only really a conversation due to the repeated "True", and "I don't know." given by the narrator. I understand that by viewing the narrator's intellectual walls being broken down so that he can open his mind to concept Ishmael is presenting, it assists our own acceptance of the concepts, and the end, of course, would not have been otherwise possible. But, I felt like a few of the conclusions drawn could have come from the narrator, rather than having him make Ishmael do all the thinking for both of them.That said, it was an extremely thought provoking book, and many of the observations Ishmael made were things I too had thought, over my like- although I will grant you I did not explore or research them at all, and he very very much has.I can see people with strong religious affiliations feeling a little attacked by the theories here, although looked at objectively, they do not nullify or genuinely attack them. They do require the ability to look beyond the text of a holy book, such as the bible, and recognize that stories may be allegories rather than factual accounts. And they do require human beings to get over themselves a little. But if your mind is open and you're willing to eat a little crow, there are some really valuable insights in this book. As a note- you don't have to agree with all or any of the content in order to appreciate the book. Perhaps you won't agree, but if it allows you to think more thoroughly and objectively about what you do believe, then that's not a bad thing, either.
rakerman on LibraryThing 27 days ago
I thought Ishmael by Daniel Quinn was ok, but since it was about stuff I already knew, I found it more didactic than revelatory.
LadyBlossom on LibraryThing 27 days ago
This book explains humanity the way I already understood it to be, that the majority of humans are required to take long hard look at what they are doing to this world simply because they think that the world is at their disposal.
Giglio.Danny on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Without seeming overly enthiusiastic, and thus losing reliability, I would like to maturly claim that this is the most useful, didactic, and entertaining book I've ever read. After convincing upwards of twenty people to read this book, I can divide the average reaction into two categories. Firstly, and more frequently, readers react in the same way that I have, regarding the book as a life-changing experience rather than "a good read". Secondly, people can feel appauled by reading "Ishmael". I personally believe this is resultant of the fear the book produces in its vivid description of the underpinnings of civilzation. The book can be summarized (poorly at best) in the following manner: A man is forced to evaluate the emergence of civilization via the Socratic Teaching Method. The book then consists mostly of a transcibed conversation between the protagonist and his teacher, a gorilla named Ishmael. Through the conversation, the man, and simultaneously the reader, reveal the true driving force behind the society in which we all live. The realization of the toxicity of this culture is vivid, and thoroughly explained in the text.I reccomend this book to even those who disagree with these claims, and therefore embrace our culture, because the book will still inform and educate.
JoseArcadio on LibraryThing 27 days ago
A simple conversation between a gorilla and man reveals to a profound philosophical look into the problems and fate of civilization as we know it. Quinn speaks through the gorilla Ishmael in order to enlighten readers and provide the beginnings of a solution to many of society's problems. Ishmael reveals the ever present influence of Mother Culture and allows the protagonist and the reader to identify and overcome this influence.The themes of the novel can becom the foundations radical new beliefs for many people or it may just be the confirmation for the need of change in our current society's way. In any case Ishmael is a must read for all people.
dhogue on LibraryThing 27 days ago
This book really made me think. I need to read it again. There are some stunning ideas--ideas that go against conventional thinking. That is always interesting.
Molave on LibraryThing 27 days ago
While I'm sure there are good ideas in this book that helped it make it to several editions, the writing was just too uneven, the initial scene too contrived, for me to get into it. With so many other works on my to-read list, I didn't find it worth going beyond the first few pages.
lhuss on LibraryThing 27 days ago
¿TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.¿ Daniel Quinn¿s Ishmael is the quintessential novel to learning and understanding the untold quirks of Human Nature, and Human Culture. The narrator finds himself in a small room in a remote building, talking to a teacher named Ishmael, who is unlike any teacher anyone has ever had. To begin with, Ishmael is a telepathic Gorilla, a philosophical genius. Through the novel, Ishmael asks questions of the narrator, and tells stories that relate to every man, woman and child on planet Earth, debunking common human myths and ideologies, and deciphering how these myths and beliefs will eventually lead to man¿s self-destruction. What makes Man different from other animals? How do we perceive the world, the galaxy, and the universe? How will man¿s thirst for dominance, belief in their own mythology, and disregard for the laws of nature lead to their inevitable downfall? Ishmael teaches the narrator the subtleties of human culture, which, when looked upon, are realized to be outrageously common and all-encompassing. This novel takes the reader through a philosophical journey, at the end of which, it is almost impossible to think the same way about the world again. Ishmael explains man¿s own quest for a Utopia, which will be brought about by the destruction of all competition, and the total dominance over the entire Earth, leaving man in his rightful place, as rulers of the world. He explains that without man, the world would be a Utopia in its own respect. Everything would live according to the laws of nature, with no war, poverty, or crime. Ishmael explains that mankind sees nature as a chaotic structure void of order or reason. In reality however, nature is very organized and lawful. The reason mankind lives differently than animals in nature is because man believes himself to be above the petty laws of natural existence. This book was incredible in the way that Ishmael was delivering his lesson to the narrator; it makes the reader feel as though they are sitting right next to the narrator figuring everything out right along with him. I highly recommend it to anyone who like philosophy, or who wants to learn about human nature. What it says on the front of the book is absolutely true. After reading this book, you look at the world and everything in it from an entirely different and enlightening perspective.